At birth, God gives you just five exclamation marks. Use them wisely.
Years ago, amid a painful stretch of copyediting, a writer friend of mine reminded me of this phrase popular among journalists. It came to mind again recently when the exclamation mark on my keyboard stopped working. Having announced neither theater fires nor world wars in my 15 years at UD, I told myself my key died out of neglect, not overuse.
Except that’s not quite true.
First, let me state that punctuation is elegant when used for good. The semicolon is among my favorites; it indicates relationship while allowing a phrase to stand on its own. Even rhetorical questions raise a quiet eyebrow when the correct mark is added — wouldn’t you agree?
There is nothing elegant about the exclamation mark. It stands up on its tippy toe and shouts at you. The party crasher steals your friends and eats all your birthday cake. Yes, it helps you escape an inferno in the nick of time, but I didn’t even consider it worthy of the toaster oven fire I recently extinguished thanks to a pair of potholders and a quick heave out onto the driveway.
But in our neon world, I have acquiesced. It was apparent when I composed a tweet to the @daymag graduating seniors and had to hit delete twice — leaving a single sentry where three had previously stood. As I’ve coaxed our student writers to curb their enthusiasm, I have found myself closer to a middle ground that would have cost me an A in J-school. It’s the way we now communicate. Even when emailing colleagues, I feel compelled to add an exclamation mark after my terminal “thanks,” lest the reader interpret my gratitude as less than genuine.
As I read the profile of Father Daniel Reehil ’87 in this issue of the magazine, I wondered if the exclamation mark belongs to the cacophony that is stealing our silence. Graduate assistant Joe Oliveri had similar sentiments after last Lent, when he taught students to quiet their minds and open their hearts.
While the exclamation mark is brash, it can also be joyful — just ask the writers of the Psalms. And it is versatile, working well in times of anger and bliss, fear and humor. I have used it in the past more often than I’ve cared to admit, but I will likely use it even more as I find reasons for celebration and connection with the exclamation mark users around me.
Since my key no longer works without a rousing and repeated barrage, each stroke is a reminder to reconsider both intention and effect — which is good advice for life.